We currently find ourselves in one of those moments
when the world feels like it’s going up in flames, don’t we?
*Note: this article was written tuesday june 2nd 2020
by Leon Osbourne
Whenever I’m upset or overwhelmed, as my friends can attest, it is my go-to response to make light of the situation I find myself in. Today, coupled with the situation, and the fact that I am not a good enough satirical comedy writer to even attempt that, I will be uncharacteristically serious.
Since the death of George Floyd, and the wave of protests which has swept through both the real and virtual worlds this past week, I have been struggling more than ever, as so many millions have, to articulate even to myself how I feel.
I have long struggled with my racial identity and the topic of racism as a mixed-race individual and have rarely felt the confidence to properly articulate my thoughts on such a topic. Alongside this, the fact that the last 72 hours have left me with so many thoughts that I have been barely able to carry on with my normal work and home routines, it seems an odd time to start.
One thing I have discovered about myself in these last few days is that I have unwittingly been carrying along with me a whole swathe of emotional trauma. Trauma that I have been suppressing, brushing-off and trying to forget. In the last 24 hours, the unrelenting presence of social media has sent me in a spiral of emotions as I have had to deal with memories which I would much rather have left unremembered.
For me, each blacked out square on Instagram has been the blankcanvas for another memory which I have left unconfronted.
Memories of my childhood in the so-called “rainbow nation”, the rainbow nation in which my main frame of reference of the lives of black men and women was as they cleaned our houses, kept our gardens and received our charity in their townships. The suited, well-kept, leadership-figures of men like my black father, or even the ruling ANC politicians, the exceptions to the entrenched rule. Not the norm.
The casual racism of young children back in the UK. Learned from their parents and targeted at the child in their class who must have been less smart because he had “just moved from Africa”. The same children who questioned how my light-skinned sister could be white when I was not.
The honour I have been so lucky to have been bestowed with. Having such “exotic” and “different” hair and skin. The repeated question from peers of where I am “from, from” as though my British passport isn’t legally binding in their eyes.
Every random security check at airports and train stations, completely routine but for the fact that they have occurred just a few too many times to have been completely random.
In my working life too. The emotional labour of being the only person of colour in a room. Feeling the pressure not to mess up and confirm imagined opinions. Speaking loud enough that everyone will hear my received pronunciation, lest I imagine them jumping to the conclusion that I should not be there.
And the compliments I have received whilst doing my job that “my English is incredibly good”, or from one local politician, “no one would ever know from your voice…”.
All these things and more, now resurfaced and etched into my brain. Until now unprocessed, ignored and repressed. All these things a by-product of other’s assumptions coming from, and reaction to, the amount of a certain chemical in my skin. But, for many, these things are just a daily occurrence, and barely scratch the surface of their lived experience with racism.
To borrow a phrase from the comedian Chris Rock, not all racism is “burning cross-racist.”
There is a darker, more subtle, racism that we might not always see. Silence and excuse-making, when you do see it, being an even more insidious part of the problem.
For me, the battle with these memories continue and I have started to feel better through this attempt to process my thoughts.
The past 72 hours has taught me a lot about myself. I can firmly reject my inner monologue that told me that I wasn’t affected by events happening thousands of miles away and that I can’t let my mental health suffer as a result of trauma left ignored and internalised. This process of remembering all the instances in which I have come face to face with this type of racism has taught me that I need to speak up more and call out racism where I see it. Furthermore, it has reinforced the importance in my mind of representation in all walks of life, something I hope can be more than a buzzword and actually translate into change. Particularly in the political sphere and especially in local government in the United Kingdom.
I am conscious of the enormously privileged position that I am in while writing this. I feel uneasy here ordering you to go off and become a better person. It would seem like a missed chance not to use here the phrase “pot calling the kettle black”. All I can hope is that you commit to doing the same as I will. That you call out racist behaviour whenever and wherever you see it. That you seek to understand and educate yourself. That you listen to what people of colour have to say, and if they are not in your networks seek them out. That you moderate unconscious bias in your daily life.
This last week has shown me that I still have a long way to go in understanding, and coming to terms with, race and my identity. It’s going to be an even longer journey to stamp out racism once and for all, but it’s a journey I’m committed to going on. Care to join me on it?